A Conversation With Stephen Sondheim: On Lyrics, On Cast Albums, On Weekends in the Country

By Kenneth Jones
24 Nov 2011

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

On the occasion of the publication of "Look, I Made a Hat," his second volume of collected and annotated lyrics, Stephen Sondheim talked to Playbill.com about everything from cast-album producing to his country house.

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Now that he's put his books "Finishing the Hat" (2010) and "Look, I Made a Hat" to bed — the latter was published Nov. 22 and Knopf will offer both in a box set in December — composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, the Tony Award winner whose Follies is currently playing on Broadway, is looking forward to a 2012 that is less about his past and more about his future.

At 81, the Pulitzer Prize-honored songwriter who contributed to the musicals Gypsy, West Side Story, Company, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park With George, among others, said by telephone that he wants to "just get back to the piano…I miss writing music."



A year after Playbill.com's interview with Sondheim at the time of the release of "Finishing the Hat,"  we snagged Sondheim for a followup.

I'm loving your new book.
Stephen Sondheim: Oh, good.

I'm taking it in courses, like a long dinner.
SS: Ha!

But I'm also skipping around. I feel like I'm sometimes getting to dessert before the seafood —
SS: Oh, don't do that, don't skip.

No?
SS: No, it's a chronological saga. Don't skip around in the Wise Guys chapter, because that really is one long arc.

Well, right, you can't really skip around in that area, because it has a beginning, middle and end — three phases of one property, Wise Guys, Bounce and Road Show.
SS: No, that's the one place. You can skip around otherwise.

You write in the beginning of the book that friends gave you suggestions for Volume Two, and you had obviously reread Volume One, "Finishing the Hat," and had your own thoughts about how to proceed. What were your friends' chief wishes?
SS: A couple of them said they wanted more about music. And also, people catching errors I'd made either of attribution or of chronology or something like that. Although, of course, a huge amount of people say that there were errors that were not errors at all. But people depend so much on the internet, which is full of misinformation, and on old programs, which list songs that never got on the stage, etc., etc., etc., so there's that kind of stuff. But, otherwise, the biggest complaint or suggestion was "can we have more about music?" And then, as I say, some what I call nitpicking — some are large nits, some are small nits, but most of those were corrected in subsequent printings. By the time I got around to putting this one together there weren't very many to correct.

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Did you know from the beginning of this two-volume project that you would be putting the film songs and the television songs into "Look, I Made a Hat"?
SS: Oh, yeah, I'd always planned that. The whole [project] was always planned for one volume, but it would have been so outrageously long that I suggested to the publisher it really should be two, and they said fine. I'd always planned that sort of stuff. It's obviously, when you do complete lyrics, it's not like a catalogue raisonné — it's almost all of it, but you don't include certain sketches and things like that, you know, but certainly all the finished ones I include. I figured since some of the juvenilia had [been] recorded…I couldn't omit it, you know, some of the birthday songs, things like that. I figured that since they were already out there in public there was no point in concealing them.

And after volume two went to bed was there somewhere that you said, "Oh, sh*t, I forgot about — "?
SS: Yes, already there's something I discovered just the other day. There's a song in "Dick Tracy" called "Live Alone and Like It," and I'd written a second release and a second ending for it and I'd completely forgotten about it, but it had already been recorded once, and I thought "oh my goodness," so that unfortunately is not included. Maybe in subsequent editions. I don't know. The trouble is, you can make small corrections, but you can't make things that were omissions in subsequent printings, because it means repaging it, so you can't do it. So I'm afraid that's just gone. And I suspect there will be a couple other small things like that, but I'm not expecting anything big.

And after it went to bed, were there trunk essays that didn't make the final cut?
SS: No, no, no, no, no. The so-called "essays," those were all preplanned… In the first volume, as you remember, there were sidebars on various lyricists and my opinions of them. Since I'd covered all the major ones, I figured for the equivalent to sidebars here I'd give one or two sidebars to the lyricists who never wrote a lot for the stage but wrote a little. And then just some observations on everything else, from, as you know, critics to awards to directors, this sort of thing.

I do love that you gave a shout out to the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh because her work is so delicious.
SS: Oh, she's wonderful. I just wish she'd written more for the stage, but you can't consider her in the same category as people like Hart and Harburg, who wrote primarily for the stage. She was an extraordinarily brilliant technician.

You write in this volume that you have no interest in a future memoir or autobiography.
SS: No, absolutely.

 Continued...